violent erasure

Nigerian women deserve more than a cursory mention in history books

By Joseph Omoh Ndukwu

Posted on September 3, 2021 09:06

 © File photo of Nigerian women queueing to vote. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)
File photo of Nigerian women queueing to vote. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis)

More than half the global population today are either girls or women. Therefore, it is worrisome when we open the history books, especially those in Nigeria, and find silence on the labour and contributions of women; a silence interrupted only by brief mentions and cursory anecdotes. 

The situation is such that if an average secondary school student in Nigeria is asked: “Who are the heroes of Nigeria?” the responses would be quick, predictable, and almost exclusively male: Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Murtala Mohammed, etc. A particularly studious one might say Ken Saro Wiwa or Aguiyi Ironsi. A daring one might say Fela. It would be a truly rare answer that offers the likes of Queen Amina, Moremi, Flora Nwapa, or Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti.

The women history has ignored

The world has a long history of relegating women to shadowy, less acclaimed spheres. It has been convenient to think of women almost exclusively as wives, mothers, daughters, housekeepers, girlfriends, or whores. For the longest time, this way of thinking has justified keeping women down as only good for unpaid domestic labour, or as the handmaiden of men.

This is common knowledge, but it has also enshrined something just as pervasive but less remarked and noticed: the casual muting by many – often without their even realising it – of women’s contributions to nation-building and civil progress.

During the Nigerian civil war, for example, large numbers of women kept things going while the men were off fighting. Beyond keeping the home front, they farmed, traded, and maintained a domestic economy. Keeping the country alive would have been all but impossible had these women been anything less than strong and ingenious. This labour, collective and largely uncredited, cannot be left unacknowledged, and where it is possible to find the names behind the deeds, the names should be written and remembered. To neglect to do this would be to remain complicit in a kind of violence, the violence of erasure.

Just before World War II broke out, engulfing all of Europe and their African colonies, a group of women – most of them market women, traders, and craftswomen – gathered in Aké in Egbaland for a meeting.

Leading them was Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, or ‘Beere’ as she was called in Nobel Prize-winning acclaimed writer Wole Soyinka’s memoir of his childhood – Aké.

Another important woman in the gathering was Mama Aduni. The women were gathered in the writer’s family compound, hosted by his mother ‘Wild Christian’.

They had come together to find a solution to the distressing problem of taxation. The British colonial government had imposed an oppressive tax on all farm produce taken to the market for sale. Tax officers and parakoyi (market wardens) harassed the women and forcibly collected the taxes on their way to the market. The women could barely support their families on the sale of their produce and so they resolved to do something bold and decisive about it, taking the matter to the Alake and his Council of Chiefs in protest.

The Egba Women’s Union was formed with Ransome-Kuti at the head, to lead the protest to demand an end to taxation on women. It was one of the first women-led political organisations in the country.

Another worth mentioning was the Lagos Market Women Association led by Madam Alimotu Pelewura. It was founded in the 1920s and became a remarkable force in the 30s and 40s with a peak membership of some 8000 strong.

Under Madam Pelewura’s leadership and activism, they pushed back against oppressive taxation and sly tactics by the colonial government to control trade and prices of food items. These movements, much like the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929, did much to establish women as having always stood at the fore of resisting the oppressive rule of the colonial government.

Ransome-Kuti paired up with Margaret Ekpo, who was an ardent believer in the need for women to become more politically active and lend a hand to shaping the future of their country. Ekpo forced husbands in a locality of Aba to allow their wives to join her political union, the Aba Market Women Association by buying all the salt in the area, an indispensable commodity which had become scarce in the years just after World War II and stipulated that she would only sell to the women who were members of her union.

The Aba Market Women Association championed the political rights of women in the region and fought for their economic protection.

The actions of these women were not limited to challenging exploitation and oppressive rule; they were geared towards preventing cultural shifts which would disadvantage women, leaving them with less and less influence and relevance than they had prior to the takeover by the colonial administration.

Redrawing the restrictive gender boundary: an example

In addition to backward policies on education, societal and ideological constraints have been instrumental in frustrating women’s aspiration to higher stakes in nation-building. Despite this, however, Nigerian women evinced remarkable resourcefulness, working within the constraints and yet finding loopholes to make their impact felt. In the words of anthropologist Karen T. Hansen, women have redrawn the restrictive gender boundary.

Ladi Kwali, a renowned potter from the village of Kwali, North-Central Nigeria, was in the business of redrawing boundaries. Having little formal education, she brought to pottery such artistry and formalistic invention that she was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from the Ahmadu Bello University in 1977, and a Nigerian National Order of Merit Award (NNOM) in 1980 – the highest national honour for academic achievement.

Other awards and honours include an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 1963,  an OON (Officer of the Order of the Niger) in 1981, and her image printed on the back of the Nigerian 20 naira note.

Bottom line

The important women in Nigeria’s history are many, and their names – Queen Amina, Moremi, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Margaret Ekpo, Alimotu Pelewura, Mama Aduni, Ladi Kwali, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, Mabel Segun, Nana Asma’u, and a host of many others – deserve to be written down more boldly and legibly. They deserve more than just a cursory mention. History can also be a document of the women.

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